In the 1920s 'agitprop' theatre was developing as a vehicle for political agitation and engagement with working class audiences. What was being promoted was a focus on street theatre, on short sketches and satires, politically challenging, inviting audience responses and seeking to stir up enthusiasm for the cause.
The Workers Theatre Movement (WTM) was initially set up in 1926, but quickly faded away. It was revived to more lasting effect in 1928, by Tom Thomas and the Hackney People's Players.
Affiliated troupes and local branches meant that the WTM soon became a national network. In Manchester the Clarion Players, their own name from a previous political movement, renamed themselves as the Manchester WTM troupe. The Red Megaphones, Ewan MacColl's troupe, performed sketches distributed by the national WTM.
The movement faded by the mid 1930s although many of the local troupes continued developing in their own ways. Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop was one of those developments while another was Unity Theatre which went on to become a lasting national network.
The WCML holds several issues of Red Stage, the WTM magazine, as well as an article on Tom Thomas and the national WTM in a Soviet publication International Theatre, which covers the multifarious political theatre activities around the world in the 1930s.
MAY DAY has come and gone, and our troupes have justified themselves everywhere. Not only by brightening and adding interest to the demonstrations, but by taking a leading part in promoting their propaganda value. The sketches and "illustrated speeches" from the platforms of the national and local speakers of the workers' movement were received with great interest, and did much to add colour to the proceedings and illustrate the class struggle in a realistic manner.
Open Air Work
May Day gave a big impetus to open-air work. Many troupes, by taking an active part in the demonstrations, found themselves giving a show in the open for the first time. The experience was valuable, for troupes who previously thought this type of work beyond their capacities have discovered that they can do this work quite well and have turned to the possibilities of the street performance with new fervour. As many of the older troupes have realised for some while, open-air work enables them to reach the ordinary workers who are not usually interested in political meetings. This is an excellent test for our material, the reaction to our sketches by workers who are probably not yet class-conscious. Both our technique and repertoire should gain greatly as we make more use of this form of show.
We reprint below extracts from the American " Workers' Theatre," which has just appeared in print for the first time. It is interesting to observe that their experiences are leading them along the same paths as our own.
Our task is to bring the message of the class struggle to as many workers as possible. When we want to reach the masses it is not enough to wait until they come to us or call for us. We have to go there where the masses are: in meetings, in workers' affairs, on the streets, at factory gates, to parades, at picnics, in working-class neighbourhoods. That means we must be mobile.
Our organizational structure, our plays, the form of our production must be such that we are able to travel with our production from one place to another, that we are able to give the same effective performance on a stage, on a bare platform, on the streets.
We cannot wait or look for a ready-made style for our new theatre; we have to develop the style of the workers' theatre by bringing it in conformity with its tasks and its means of expression.
The organizers, players, writers, and directors of workers' theatres are workers, the audiences are workers. Both are not prepared by a long literary and cultural education, which is only available to the members of the bourgeois class who have the leisure and the money for it.
Worker players are not able to express, and worker audiences are not able to understand, complicated structures of ideas and refined intellectual language.
The workers' theatre plays must be simple, so that workers can produce them and workers can understand them. Simplicity, however, does not mean crudity, does not mean absence of art.
On the contrary: the more artistic our productions are, the more effective they are, and the more efficient is the political education and propaganda we carry.
The art of the workers' theatre will be any art using the simplest elements according to creative elements at our disposal, according to our economic situation and according to our audience.
Resources about the Workers' Theatre Movement in the library collection
Raphael Samuel, Ewan MacColl and Stuart Cosgrove, Theatres of the left, 1880-1935: workers' theatre movements in Britain and America (1985) - Shelfmark: E47
- The red stage: organ of the Workers' Theatre Movement (Nov 1931-May 1932) - Shelfmark: AG Theatre Box 1
- New red stage: organ of the Workers' Theatre Movement (Jun, Jul 1932) - Shelfmark: AG Theatre Box 1
- Workers Theatre Movement monthly bulletin (Feb 1933) - AB Periodicals A-Z